I don’t know how I would rewrite the history of civilisation. The Holocaust wouldn’t be the foundation of Universal Human Rights. The Crusades may well have happened over a different religion, using weapons not dissimilar to axes and swords. There would have been a sceptic in the vein of Nietzsche or Freud–but nothing can surmount either of them. It isn’t possible to conceive of a history of the world without drawing reference to war, acquisition of land, or doubt.
This is what I think about as I walk four blocks in the opposite direction of MoMA, looking for an ATM that doesn’t charge $4.50 to withdraw $20.00. I think about the amount of study I have to do upon my return and how much I’ll achieve on a 14-hour flight. There are policemen standing at the intersection, but I cross on the red light anyway; they’ve not stopped anyone before, except one black man. I didn’t intervene because I had no context for their argument.
A legal fiction is an assumption that purports to or does conceal, alter, or modify a fact or rule of law. They exist in order for the law to be applied in a particular way. One example is that of survivorship: if three siblings die in the same accident, the eldest is deemed to have died first. Terra Nullius was declared a legal fiction in 1992. Mabo stands for the proposition that whilst a legal fiction can be abolished, a court cannot question the foundations of the common law in a sovereign nation. It stands also for the idea that the court is unable to comprehend the idea of multiple, co-existent sovereigns. But no judgement will tell that to the reader. It must be inferred from the reasoning and principles behind native title.
It takes four cases to make sense of the concept: Mabo v Queensland, The Wik People v Queensland, Yorta Yorta v Victoria, and Western Australia v Ward. The latter two concern statutory interpretation of the principles established in the former. Yorta Yorta is distinct for the evidentiary burden it placed on the plaintiffs to establish that they had been connected to the land they occupied prior to their subsequent dispossession upon settlement. It was not, concluded the court, enough that they should know of the traditional customs and practices maintained by their ancestors since time immemorial. Their relationship with the land could only have been recognised in the eyes of the law if they had not been forcibly removed from it.
Art communicates where the law falls silent. It would be understandable, though incorrect, for any individual to assume that the billions of words written in judgements can convey some aspect of what it means to be human, to feel pain and to suffer—existence, in a word. But often, precedent speaks whilst saying little. Basquiat reminds us that existence is the conflict that arises from multiple concepts attempting to co-exist and failing. People are ugly. History has never made sense except when it has been rendered through the word after the fact. It will never be possible to understand why the world is the way it is. He is there, in MoMA, which is perhaps exactly where he envisaged his work: the black head emerging to speak before the viewer knows where they are. Untitled is a collage of A4 paper, each piece able to be isolated as a work in itself. Unlike van Gogh’s Starry Night, visitors are permitted to examine Untitled in detail: each miniature poem and line drawing, the tracings of the artist’s thought processes, is laid out in a way not dissimilar to a map.
I think about the fridge Basquiat painted over while he was alive and how it was eventually sold for a sum that could cover the cost of my degree thrice over. As with his contemporaries, he never started that way. But it is possible now to buy a t-shirt bearing his SAMO crown for US$10. There are poems, fragments, and layer upon layer of paint which the viewer can, if they so desire, spend hours following the lines in Untitled, moving in an infinite number of directions along the work and finding new meaning each time. It is not dissimilar to the way the common law is formed, I think. But I am wrong.
In The Wik People v Queensland, the court examines the ancient common law doctrine of tenure as it applies to native title. The central question is the nature of the grant that the State made over a particular piece of land to pastoralists in rural Queensland, and whether the way it operated was sufficient to extinguish the rights of the Wik people to their land. The court concluded that it was not: the means of granting land were not to be construed in so stringent a manner that the Crown had full, beneficial ownership of the land once the grant had finished. The concept of ownership, as it applied to the Crown, was connected more to imperial expansion in a land in which colonialists were unsure of how to govern with any certainty, rather than supremacy of government.
As with its predecessor, Wik is one of the few cases one reads with some sense that there is justice involved in law. Though the judiciary cannot itself be political, it acts at the behest of the will of Parliament, and the Native Title Act as it then stood was altered shortly thereafter. The results can be found in pages of books about Indigenous land rights that few members of the Australian public will ever read. Instead, as is said each year on January 26th, it is now up to the Indigenous Australian population to ‘move on’ from the indignities of the past.
On level five, there is a trust deed that sets out the terms of reparation for descendants of African American slaves who were deemed as property for the purposes of insurance claims. MoMA is a trustee, but the deed itself (from memory—I cannot find any trace of it online) is contingent upon Congress passing a bill for reparations. It is a recently acquired work, but a thorough reading of it reveals that it is bona fide and not merely symbolic. Visitors walk past it, to a room with an enormous wall of static; I don’t blame them. It looks not dissimilar to Untitled—all it needs is drawings, poems, lines and paint. The deed shows, in every way that Basquiat could have, the ugliness of what it means to be a human, in this epoch, with this history. “People are ugly,” says the black head as I greet it once more before I leave. It has no crown.